sex sux

13 06 2009

When I started working as a teacher in the Recovery School District in the fall, there were a lot of things I wasn’t really prepared to see. Fights breaking out in the hallway, for instance, and graffiti on the walls of the hallway scrawling out prison release dates for assorted used-to-be students. And then, on my second day of teaching, I saw for the first time in my life a pregnant girl wearing a high school uniform.

At the time, predictably, I looked her as a symbol of tough times in a tough city; more of a visual phenomenon than a human being, with her stomach resembling a taut beach ball, and her definitive waddle in place of the usual sassy high school stride. “Wow, this must be a REALLY rough school,” I thought; but I didn’t think much more about it.

Fast forward three months. Round bellies had become a lot more commonplace among the female student body at my high school. “Summer accidents,” they were called under hushed voices, and sometimes out loud; testaments to the consequences of a long and boring season off. One day, the woman who came in once a week to help the mothers-to-be in the Family Center called all the names of the pregnant students over the loudspeaker. I counted the names as they came: 29. If there were 300 students in total at this high school, and 150 of those were female, that meant almost 20% of all the girls who went to my school were knocked up. In other words, statistically, one out of every five female students I’d teach that year would be pregnant.

We must ask, of course, if there is a possibility that these young women are INTENDING to get pregnant. According to a nationwide study conducted by the Guttmacher Institute in 2006, 86% of all teen pregnancies are unintended; so these girls probably didn’t jump for joy when the stick turned blue. That leads me to believe that these young women (and the young men who charm themselves into their lives) — who are not by any means, I promise you, inherently stupid — are woefully and embarrassingly uninformed about what happens when people have sex.

As NPR put it in an article way back in 2004,

The debate over whether to have sex education in American schools is over. A new poll by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government finds that only 7 percent of Americans say sex education should not be taught in schools.

The article goes on to assert that there are only “pockets of controversy” surrounding what kind of sex education should be taught. In some states — Vermont, for instance, — students can expect to begin learning about sex in the fourth grade, and will continue learning about it until they graduate from high school, with a working knowledge of dozens of contraceptive methods and their success rates. In other states, though — Louisiana is one of many examples — not only is sexual education not required to be taught in public school, it may only be taught in a federally funded A-H definition of abstinence-only education.

A lot of states take advantage of the highly censored Title V abstinence-only funding, and it’s been going on for a long time (long enough for it to be officially be considered outdated, in my opinion). The federal government first began supporting these programs in 1982, and then stepped it up a notch in 1996, when President Clinton’s welfare reform law included a clause for $50 million a year to be spent on abstinence-only sex ed programs. This was a groundbreaking year for sex ed in America. The law amended Title V of the Social Security Act, and provided an unprecedented amount of money for sexual education (which pleased liberals), and also provided an anal-retentive definition (see above) of what abstinence-only means (which pleased social conservatives).  See? Everybody wins!

Except for public school students. Because the definition of abstinence-only is so conservative and narrow that it doesn’t let teachers do so much as admit that condoms exist, let alone explain how to use them. So now I have students who legitimately believe that they can achieve the same effect with a scrap of a Winn-Dixie bag wrapped around their penis as they would with a Trojan.

Since 1996, the funding provided for abstinence-only sexual education has swelled enormously. It is rarely re-examined. And as teen pregnancy rates among America’s low income and racial minority populations continues to grow, so do federally funded sex ed programs which teach them only a fraction of what they need to know.

To ask how this federal funding impacts the teen pregnancy rate in America at large is a complicated question. Of the states with the top five highest teen pregnancy rates (Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Mississippi, and Texas), only Nevada requires that students at public school receive sex ed. Three of the five states receive Title V funding, and not a single state requires students to learn about safe sex or contraceptives.

On the other hand, of the states with the bottom five teen pregnancy rates (Maine, North Dakota, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Vermont) all but North Dakota requires sexual education in the classroom. Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire have extensively comprehensive sex ed programs, which combine the benefits of abstinence with various contraceptive methods. New Hampshire and North Dakota do, however, accept Title V funding.

So the bottom line is pretty clear here: States which require that students receive sexual education have a lower rate of teen pregnancy than states with no requirement. Shocker.

Now let’s take a leap from state statistics to statistics by race and ethnicity. According to the same study done by the Guttmacher Institute, the pregnancy rate among nonwhite American teens is more than twice the pregnancy rate among white American teens. And that particular statistic has remained unwavering since 1986. Now, Biology will tell us that in no way, shape, or form are nonwhite teenage girls more fertile than their white peers; however, Sociology will tell us that white Americans generally receive a better education than nonwhite Americans. It is not a far stretch to assume that white Americans are more likely to receive comprehensive sex ed than nonwhite Americans. I believe that this is the root cause of the education gap in America today.

Yes, that was a big leap. So let me tell you about Raqueisha.

Raqueisha (not her real name) was a favorite student of mine. I know, I know: You’re not supposed to have favorites; but Raqueisha was really, really on top of everything. She always had her work done on time. She always did the extra credit. She aced all her Biology exams. She raised her hand. She made everyone laugh. She stayed after school. She was just one of those kids who gives you hope for the future, and that was that.

Raqueisha had been accepted to Xavier University of Louisiana — a prestigious historically Black Catholic school in New Orleans — and she was going to go in the fall. I remember thinking, “She’s getting out of this horrible cycle too many young New Orleanians fall into. She’s going places. She’s going to make it.” And of course, you know how the story ends.

Raqueisha told me she was pregnant two weeks before graduation. My jaw dropped. “Can’t you get an abortion?” I blurted out at her, completely unprofessionally, in a desperate attempt to go back. She started to cry — of course not. She would never do that. God gave her this baby for a reason, so college was just going to have to wait. I was speechless; aghast. I let her walk out of the room without offering so much as a word of moral support.

Later, Raqueisha left a poem she had written about the whole experience on my desk. An excerpt:

She don’t know what to do

She thinks her life is completely through

She never thought this day would come

So soon.

Now she wishes her problem was a balloon

Where it can go away and don’t come back

Just float to the moon

Something clicked for me with Raqueisha. Here was someone who could have truly made it on her own and achieved the kind of success she had always dreamed of. But now she’s going to have to raise a kid, and she has no idea how to do it. She doesn’t even know how to take care of herself.

I started thinking about the young mothers I met with all year about their problematic sons — hardworking women never older than 35 pulling multiple shifts at dead-end jobs to make ends meet. Single mother cliches, to put it bluntly. But what if they had had another five years before they had their first child? Or another ten? Is it possible they would have had the experience, humility and fundamental human tools necessary to give their children just a little bit more?

If we look at a school system which is failing the most at-risk youth in the country, we must examine all the components of the system. Yes, we must hold teachers and administrators accountable. Yes, we must raise the bar and hold students to the highest standards possible as well. So too, we must pay attention to the parental roles in the lives of our students. Too often, at-risk students are coming from families where their initial conception was not a welcome surprise to their parents. Becoming pregnant should be a choice.

I am not saying that my students’ parents do not love their children. They do. They love their children unconditionally, and they have made sacrifices for them that I would have otherwise considered unimaginable. But we live in a world in which all human beings should be able to live the lives they dream of living; should be able to reach the private goals they set for themselves. If our young people were more aware of the consequences of unprotected sex, they would finally be given that chance.





milk cartons

28 06 2008

So I’ve been teaching first graders here in Phoenix, Arizona. Here are some facts about Phoenix:

 

  1. There are cool bicycle riders and cool vegan food here, even though it seems like cool vegans and cool bike riders should not be in Phoenix.
  2. It’s the fifth largest city in the United States. I don’t understand this. Sometimes it is 121 degrees here. Why would you want that?
  3. Phoenix has 15 libraries. Here is what one person says about the Burton Barr Central Library: “It gets the vote as being the best library in Phoenix, but then agian it didnt have very good competition. I only dislike the employees about 50% to 75% of the time. “
  4. There are roadrunners. I don’t know that this is a fact. My mother told me there were roadrunners.
I’m teaching at a great little school called Pastor Elementary.  I am teaching first grade. Here are some things I had forgotten about first grade:
  1. It’s difficult to say the word “sphere.” (relatively unrelated sidenote: here’s a cool website that connects blog entries to real articles. it’s called sphere. it’s pretty nerdy.)
  2. It’s difficult to listen to other first graders talk when you are also in first grade.
  3. Hannah Montana is kind of a bfd.
  4. Ditto High School Musical. And even Camp Rock (albeit prematurely).
  5. It’s difficult to solve puzzles using tangrams.
But probably the most important thing I’ve forgotten about 1st grade is that it’s exceedingly difficult to open milk cartons. You know, those little lunch milk cartons you always got with your (disgusting) hot lunch. Every day, I go to lunch with these kids. And every day I am asked to open at least ONE milk carton which I cannot physically open. This is embarrassing.
Milk cartons generally fascinate me. Why did anyone decide that milk should go in little cardboard waxy boxes? Why can’t milk cartons take on juice box format? Wouldn’t that be just as efficient and much easier to open?
I Technorati-ed “milk cartons” today and only found one thing of interest. I guess this guy ordered a computer from eBay and whoever mailed it to him mailed it in a box which also contained an old pizza box, an empty soda container and (wait for it) a milk carton (really it was a milk JUG, but it’s still gross). The site has pictures. They’re gross. It’s every eBay user’s nightmare.
The last thing to note is that the academic achievement gap is worse than I thought it was. I have kids in my class who can’t read a word. And then there are kids in my friends’ seventh grade classes reading at a Kindergarten level. Maybe it’s cliche, but you see it happening and you wonder HOW we let it get this bad. It’s the most depressing evidence of institutionalized classism and racism that I’ve seen in my entire life.
Check out some statistics: